The Greatest Christmas Songs

Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: music is subjective. And Christmas music all the more so. Mainly because of the immense amount of sentiment attached to the Christmas season. Your heart and spirit can latch on to a song, maybe you heard it as a child or it relates to memories of the past, connections to family members, etc. Not only that but I’ve always felt that anything was OK at Christmas; meaning nothing was too cornball to listen to or watch. Even things overly sentimental that may even have made you cringe in your better instincts were not only acceptable at Christmas but welcomed. After all, it is the season of such things. So, those who love Christmas music love it. All of it. Well, most of it. Lists like the one I’m about to present are almost redundant because of the sentimental connection I’ve tried to explain. My list of the best Christmas songs will bring blank stares from a lot of you because your own Christmas memories usually are accompanied by your own Christmas soundtrack which may be very different from mine or anyone else’s. However, what I’ve tried to pinpoint are the songs that are generally accepted as favourites, songs that are significant historically and culturally. Yes, opinions will vary but this list, I think, contains songs that serve to enrich the Christmas experience. Chances are, if Christmas is your thing, if you truly love the season for Christ-related or Santa-related reasons or both, than you love most of these songs. Or at least you understand and accept them as priceless elements of the season. For each track I’ve tried to state a case for their inclusion on anyone’s Christmas playlist. And, yeah, ranking can be really sketchy but I went ahead and ranked them anyways. Lastly, there are no carols here as they deserve their own post.

10. “Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry (1947) — Sub-titled “Down (or Right Down) Santa Claus Lane”, this perennial favourite was written by “The Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry in 1947. Christmas of 1946, Autry was riding his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now the Hollywood Christmas Parade) and heard the spectators chanting “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus!”. This inspired Gene to write the lyrics to the song. (Gene relates this story on one of his Christmas albums) Autry recorded his song three times. The first came out on Columbia Records and was a Top Ten hit on the pop and country charts. It’s appreciation was increased by it’s use in the Rankin-Bass Christmas special from 1974, “A Year Without a Santa Claus”. It’s a pleasant, charming song that sings the praises of good, ol’ Saint Nick. And, again, people of a certain age no doubt grew up with Gene Autry’s Christmas music, specifically the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” LP. “Here Comes Santa Claus” was also recorded notably by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey and Billy Idol (!?).

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9. “Christmas Time is Here” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — Here’s a perfect example of the ‘connection’ thing I was talking about. People my age grew up with the Peanuts gang and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in particular. The special from ’65 is notable for it’s assertion that the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is the Nativity. Because we all grew up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, this special is near and dear to us, that includes the music that goes with it. Peanuts specials were unique in that they presented the adventures of these kids against a backdrop of jazz music. The man who created it all was Vince Guaraldi. His soundtrack to the Christmas special featured not only “Christmas Time is Here” but also the immortal theme, “Linus and Lucy”. The album featured an instrumental version of “Christmas Time” and a version featuring vocals from the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. The song reminds you of the special, which is all is has to do. But, on top of that, it is a quiet gem, driven by Guaraldi’s gentle piano and drummer Jerry Granelli’s brushes. The song has been covered countless times but it is rare among Christmas songs in that Guaraldi’s version is the only one that ‘counts’. Oddly, it wasn’t covered at all until 1982 – and then it was flood gates. Other artists recording versions include: Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots (!?), Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and LeAnn Rimes.

8. “Jingle Bells”/”Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – Bing Crosby (1943) — I’ve cheated a bit here with this tie but these are two similar recordings from the greatest of all the Christmas crooners. In 1935, Bing Crosby recorded the most beloved of all Christmas carols, “Silent Night”. As a religious man, Bing was hesitant to record the venerable song as he thought it was inappropriate for a singer of popular songs – and an owner of racehorses – to profit from so sacred a song. But record it he did and it began his 40-year run as the finest interpreter of seasonal warmth. By 1943, Bing Crosby was just about as big as you can get and the thing you need to understand about Bing is that, in Artie Shaw’s words, “he was the first hip white man born in the United States”. His jazz sensibilities and his sense of “swing” were highly tuned by this point. Never was this more apparent than in these two seminal recordings both recorded the same September day in 1943. Teaming with his regular singing partners, the Andrews Sisters, Bing swings like nobody’s business on these two numbers. “Jingle Bells” should have it’s own post. It may be one of the most recorded songs in history and lends itself well to a swinging treatment. “Santa Claus…” is taken at a more middling tempo but the rhythm inherent in Bing’s vocal and the spry accompaniment from the brass make for an excellent recording. Two definitive Christmas recordings from a man at the very height of his powers. “Jingle Bells” has been recorded countless times, most notably by: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Booker T. and the MG’s, Jose Feliciano, the Hollyridge Strings, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ben Rector and about a thousand others. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: the Crystals, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, Michael Buble and Dokken (!?).

7. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love (1963) — Where do I start? Bing Crosby was at the vanguard of the initial wave of popular singers recording Christmas music in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s. Then, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, few artists indulged in seasonal sounds, the Drifters and Presley notable exceptions. And then, in November of 1963, Phil Spector released “A Christmas Gift for You”, a Christmas record filled with songs by artists in his stable. It has been called the greatest Christmas album ever made and it started the second wave of prolific pop/rock Christmas recordings. The only new song on this album, “Christmas…” is absolutely heartbreaking. The lyrics speak of separation at Christmas but what is most gut-wrenching about it is the chord changes. The song itself – vocals aside – is filled with longing. It’s songs like this that Springsteen channeled for his most emotive work. Indeed, “Bobby Jean” from “Born in the U.S.A.” is almost a carbon copy. Add to this the power of the voice of Darlene Love and you have a potent package. Thing is, the potency of this track does not necessarily come from it’s “Christmas-ness” but it is a Christmas song, often called the greatest Christmas rock song ever. It is heavy. Unsuccessful when it first came out, it has since been covered by U2 (Love sang back-up), Michael Buble and Mariah Carey.

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6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – Vaughn Monroe (1945) — The hardest Christmas song title to type. There are a handful of staples in this genre and this is one of them. If you are going to put out a Christmas album, this is going to be on it, particularly if you operate in the traditional pop idiom. Big-voiced Vaughn Monroe introduced this tune with an RCA Victor release in 1945. It was written by legendary and prolific songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and is one of those tunes that make no specific reference to Christmas. It is a great swinger that rolls at the end of “Die Hard” and has been covered – and covered well – by virtually every jazz/traditional pop singer, including: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (twice), Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass slow it down for an outstanding mellow version.

5. “An Old Fashioned Christmas” – Frank Sinatra (1964) — What a shock for me to learn that the biggest swinger of them all did not really swing at Christmas time. When I first heard Sinatra’s Christmas albums (technically three), I could not immediately connect until I realized that what he was doing so well was being reverent. In 1964, Sinatra teamed up with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and put out the hard to find “12 Songs of Christmas”. Written by regular Sinatra writers (and pals) Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and sung solo on the album by Frank, “An Old Fashioned Christmas” is the perfect mid-century Christmas song. If you’re like me – and I sincerely hope you’re not – you love any depiction of the past, be it in novel, film or song. Whether it’s 2017 or 1964, the song is all about nostalgia. It’s about a swinger who’s domain is the happenin’ city. But it’s late in December and this cat is thinking of home: “Give me an old-fashioned Christmas…my heart remembers smoldering embers warmly aglow. I’d trade that whole Manhattan skyline, the shimmering steel and chrome, for one old-fashioned Christmas back home”.

4. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams (1963) — Everything needs an opener and this song is the perfect opening tune for the Christmas season. George Wyle was a songwriter who worked for “The Andy Williams Show”. George wrote this song for Andy’s second annual Christmas show and it was released on Andy’s first Christmas record that year. (George Wyle also wrote the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”) All this makes it one of the more recently introduced Christmas standards. It’s an exciting composition in triple time and the lyrics are chock full of Christmas imagery. It is one of the most regularly heard Christmas songs of them all, as it is a celebration of all that we love about the season. For such an iconic song of the season, it has not been covered often. Johnny Mathis did a carbon copy version while Harry Connick, Jr. – as he is wont to do – wrote a very unique arrangement for it and recorded it on his Christmas album of 2008.

3. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957) — The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll recorded two Christmas albums, one in 1957 and one in 1971. Only 20 Christmas songs and yet he has a sizable Christmas rep. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” of ’57 is the highest selling Christmas album of all-time (U.S. sales) and this was the first track on it. Presley went into the studio to make this album of Christmas and gospel classics and found himself one song short. His regular songwriters – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame-ers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – adjourned to a quiet room and emerged a short time later with this simple gem. The magic here is in Presley’s performance. King recorded many timeless rock ‘n’ roll classics between 1956 and 1958 – the years that cemented his legacy for all time – but few of them really display the sheer savage power of his voice. One example is “Jailhouse Rock”. And another is “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. How odd. Christmas songs are generally tender, warm, lovingly nostalgic and evocative of home and hearth. This tune is a beast. The Jordanaires chanting “Christmas”, J.D. Fontana punishing his drums and some stellar blues piano from Dudley Brooks all combine to make this a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll standard.

2. “The Christmas Song” – Nat ‘King’ Cole (1961) — For almost all of the songs on this list I’ve gone to ‘the source’. Actually, it’s better stated to say that most of the greatest Christmas recordings ever are cases where artists are introducing a song to the public. Another great example of this is “The Christmas Song”, first recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole – often subtitled either “Merry Christmas to You” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Like “Let It Snow!”, it’s a case of songwriters sweltering in mid-summer and imagining the cooler, cozier vibe of Christmas time. Legendary singer Mel Torme wrote the lyrics and Robert Wells composed the tune. Nat Cole and his trio debuted the song in the ’40’s. The definitive 1961 version was their third recording of it. There is a sublime gentleness in the opening two guitar notes and the sweeping strings that transport you to a dimly lit, warm, cozy room. The fireplace is aglow. The tree is lit. And Nat Cole’s smoky voice sings of the many charms of the season. The ’61 version is actually a perfect recording, Christmas or no. Mel’s lyrics add to the warmth and heartfelt sentiment.

1. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby (1947) — A no-brainer. An easy, even unimaginative choice for #1. Not even a choice, really. If you decide to write about Christmas music, you are going to talk about Papa Bing and his glorious 1947 version of “White Christmas”. It is the reason secular Christmas music exists. This song really deserves it’s own post so I’ll keep it simple. Written by Irving Berlin and first recorded by Bingo in 1942, it is the world’s best selling single. Crosby’s initial recording in 1942 was incredibly successful. In 1942, the song spent 11 weeks at #1. In 1945 and 1946, the song went to #1 again – no other single in history has reached the top of the charts in three separate years. Although the song has been recorded over 500 times, it has always been associated with Bing Crosby. Crosby always downplayed his role in making the song legendary: “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully”. Along with Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, this is one of the very few perfect recordings in history.

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So…what do you think? It may be hard to argue with these choices as they are, for the most part, universally loved. But did I miss any? Do any of these songs place too high? Aside from some really obscure stuff I could name, there really is no bad Christmas music. By definition, it is pleasant, warm, tenderly nostalgic and evokes memories of home. It truly is one of the joys of the season.

Stay Tuned for my next post when we’ll look at the lesser known Christmas classics

– the Deep Cuts…

 

 

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Stayin’ Alive: Tony Bennett

A couple of years ago I published a post I called “Stayin’ Alive” (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/stayin-alive/) . It served as a tribute to certain legendary figures from different walks of life that were still alive and – for some – even still working well into their 80’s. Then 2016 happened, a year when we lost a long list of entertainers. Although I’ve only lost three from my list (Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer and Chuck Berry), as 2017 dawned I felt like I wanted to shine some light on some older entertainers. Just in case they start dying.

Tony Bennett is a good place to start. Tony Bennett is the ONLY place to start. The man and his career are both truly remarkable. Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens, New York on August 3, 1926. As of today, that makes him 90 years old. Here’s the thing, though, that I want to establish up front: in these “Stayin’ Alive” episodes, I will try to focus on those legendary personalities that continue to maintain their visibility, at least somewhat, despite their advanced ages. Here again, Bennett is the only place to start as he continues to release albums as recently as December 2016.

Tony grew up the youngest of three kids born to parents from families of Reggio Calabria, a town in rural Italy that is also the birthplace of Gianni and Donatella Versace. Tony grew up in poverty but his father, who died when Tony was 10, instilled in Tony a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering. Like so many others of his generation, Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He was known in school as a caricaturist and a singer. In fact, when the Triborough Bridge – now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; a bridge that connects Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx – opened in 1936, Tony sang and stood next to legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who patted Tony on the head. Tony began singing for money at age 13 in 1939. At this juncture we should pause to consider: Tony Bennett is still ‘singing for money’ – 78 years later. Tony also attended New York’s School of Industrial Art and considered a career as an artist.

Tony was drafted into the US Army in November of 1944 in the final stages of World War 2. In Germany, Tony saw bitter combat in cold winter conditions and escaped death several times. He was also involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. At the conclusion of the war, Tony stayed on in Germany and joined the Special Services, entertaining American troops. Dining one night with a black friend from high school, in an army that was still heavily segregated, Tony was demoted and reassigned to Graves Registration duty. He was discharged in ’46 and studied singing on the GI Bill, Bel Canto singing, a discipline that Sinatra was also a proponent of. He made a few recordings in 1949 (68 years ago!) as Joe Bari but got no love. Also in ’49, singer and actress Pearl Bailey heard Tony sing and asked him to open for her at her show to which she had also invited Bob Hope. Hope liked what he heard and took Tony on the road with him, simplifying Tony’s birth name to ‘Tony Bennett’. The next year, 1950, Tony became a proper professional singer and was signed by Mitch Miller to Columbia Records. Again, let’s stop: Bennett records for Columbia today, a working relationship that began 67 years ago.

Tony began his tenure at Columbia as a crooner of pop tunes. His earliest hits remain some of the songs that are still most closely identified with him: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Because of You”, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Blue Velvet”. When it comes to ‘mid-century modern’ culture and style, these early recordings of Bennett’s are essential listening. As early as 1954, Bennett began to lean towards jazz and soon after hooked up with the man who would become his long-time pianist, Ralph Sharon, who wisely told Bennett that a career focused on singing sweet pop songs would be a short career. So, Bennett continued to go in a jazz direction and to record quality compositions from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Perhaps the pinnacle of his recording career came in 1962 with his recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. The single only reached #19 but it spent close to a year on various other charts and increased his exposure. The album hit #5 and the single and album reached gold record status. At the Grammys that year the single won Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. It has, of course, become his signature song and was ranked #23 on a list of ‘historically significant’ recordings of the 20th century.

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Bennett continued recording quality material as an album artist into the 1970’s when the most telling episode of Bennett’s career occurred. A common method that singers would use throughout the late ’60’s and ’70’s to stay relevant in the rock era was to record the ‘hits of the day’ in their own easy listening style. Andy Williams basically spent his career doing this. Other notable artists employing this method include Mel Torme (listen to his “Sunshine Superman”), Peggy Lee (“A Hard Day’s Night”?) and maybe most infamously, Bing Crosby and his album “Hey, Jude! Hey, Bing!”. The evil Clive Davis suggested that Tony do the same. Bennett was so opposed to the idea that he became physically ill while recording these tracks. The result (“Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!”) was dreadful and Tony never revisited this genre. And this is the thing about Tony: he has always been a tireless purveyor of what’s known as “The Great American Songbook” or American popular standards. These include quality songs that, for the most part, were written in the early twentieth century and have been recorded countless times by every vocalist that operates in this idiom.

Shortly after this episode, Tony took a hiatus from Columbia and joined Verve, a predominantly jazz label. He recorded sparingly and released two quality albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans but real success evaded him at this time. The nadir of his career came in the late 1970’s. Bennett found himself without a record label, without a manager while performing virtually no concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing and the IRS was after him. Worst of all, he developed a cocaine addiction. An overdose almost took his life in 1979.

At this point, Tony Bennett’s story is a common one. Popular singer struggles in the rock era and turns to drugs and trades on his past successes. But also at this point, his story takes a decidedly heartfelt turn. Actually, Tony’s decisions throughout the ’80’s are a blueprint for getting a career back on track. It started with family. Nice. At the dawn of the 1980’s, Tony called his sons, Danny and Dae. Danny, a failing musician with a head for business, joined forces with his father, an immense musical talent who struggled in the business arena. Like Tom Jones with his son around this time, Tony Bennett’s son became his manager. Danny worked wonders with his father. Most importantly from a musical standpoint, Danny began to book his dad into small clubs and colleges to restore his reputation and image. By 1986, Bennett was back with Columbia Records, this time having full artistic control over his recordings.

A lot of credit has to go to Tony’s son, Danny, who simply thought that a youthful audience would appreciate his father if given a chance. Subsequently, no changes were made to Bennett’s formal appearance, song choice, singing style or musical accompaniment. He continued to be exposed to a young, hip audience with appearances on shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman”, “The Simpsons” and various MTV shows. Bennett stood out, he was different, a sixty-year-old man in a silk suit. The kids were down. It was at this time that Tony put his stamp on the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy and began what I call the ‘victory lap’. When a performer is on top of the world, the wheel tends to come around. Tastes and styles change and even true artists can fall out of favour with the public as well as with critics. But after a season, if the artist is true and genuine and has the tools and uses them well he can rise again and achieve legend status. His past career is appreciated and he performs again with fresh ideas while maintaining his classic style. Bennett stayed true to who he was as a performer and took up the banner again as the world’s predominant singer of standards.

Writing this post has made me reassess my feelings towards Tony’s recorded output since his victory lap began with the release of “The Art of Excellence” in 1986. I’ve always been a little disappointed with the themes he has explored on his albums. Each of his albums seems to be dedicated to a specific set list of tracks united by a common thread: songs associated with a certain artist or composer and endless variations on the dreaded ‘duets’ format. Too often it seemed to me to be gimmicky. And let’s face it, some themes have been decidedly ill-advised (“In the Playground”, children’s songs ‘featuring’ an appearance by Rosie O’Donnell and “Viva Duets” containing  duets with Spanish artists, most of whom are unknown in English-speaking North America). I wanted them all to be like 2004’s fine “The Art of Romance”: a small group, good songs, excellent singing. My distaste with these ‘theme’ albums stems mostly from my immense disappointment with the two duets albums with which Frank Sinatra ended his decades-long recording career. Pointless and poorly executed, Frank’s “Duets” and “Duets II” are considered pointless debaucheries by Sinatraphiles: classic Frank songs that need no new versions recorded with a baffling parade of duet partners. Compare this with the stellar final recordings of the late Johnny Cash and you lament what could have been: 80-year-old FS, on a stool, singing live with a couple instruments. So, I didn’t want to see this happen to Bennett. I mean, who needs “If I Ruled the World” with Queen Latifah? Add to this the fact that if you saw Bennett live around this time, as my wife and I did twice, you would have been delighted with the sound of his three-piece group and his impeccable and ageless chops. So, why all the gimmicks on the albums?! But here’s what I figure. Tony goes into the studio to record an album of the songs of Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc. with the intention of using his unique platform to let the world know what wonderful songs these artists are responsible for. After all, that has been Bennett’s thing since at least the ’60’s, carrying the banner for the great musical figures of the 20th century. Something else to consider is something I had an inkling of but I really had no idea about until I looked into it. It’s about the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. This award has been given out for the last 26 years and Bennett has won it an astounding 13 times, including one stretch when he won it 5 years running. What’s even more amazing is that since the award’s inception, Tony has released 19 albums – and 13 of them have won this award. They’ve also fared well on the charts. Tony’s last six albums have gone to #1 on the U.S. Jazz Albums chart giving him a total of 11 (of his last 19) albums to top this chart. “Duets II” and “Cheek to Cheek” both reached #1 on the Jazz Albums chart as well as the Billboard 200 chart of all pop albums. After a second look, I guess I can concede that only “The Playground” – kids songs featuring Elmo and Rosie O’Donnell, “Viva Duets” – the disposable collection featuring Latino vocalists that Bennett for the most part has little or no rapport with and “Cheek to Cheek” – his chart-topping gimmick album with the questionable talent and repulsive personality of Lady Gaga, are the ones I can say were actually bad ideas.

Bottom line: Tony Bennett has become a legend who really has no peer. And his career as a whole? Well, not even FS was topping the charts at the age of 88. He is a true survivor, still vital, active and relevant well into his 80’s. He truly deserves the accolades now, while he is still here, stayin’ alive.

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Stayin’ Alive

It seems we’re always captivated by the “In Memoriam” segment of the Academy Awards telecast. And I’m always interested in the montage that Turner Classic Movies puts together at the end of the year, paying tribute to those in the movie industry who have passed throughout the preceding twelve months. Too often I find myself surprised: “When did he die?” Or even worse: “I didn’t realize she was still alive”. Seems we’re losing legends at an alarming rate. The ‘golden era’ of anything, really, is getting to be so long ago that those who contributed to these eras are generally no longer with us. Particularly those who really stood out in their field.

I know I feel that when someone dies and the tributes are flying, I want to express my love of this person and share the ways that he or she has contributed to my life but in the days after they pass it can be so much white noise. It can seem insincere. An artist dies and his or her body of work is revisited and it’s revealed they’ve made lasting contributions. Everybody is suddenly ‘reminded’ of them. But by then it’s too late to see the person live or even to just view them as a living person. I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to some legends that are actually still alive and while we can still enjoy their work or just the fact that we’re still sharing the same space with them.

So, I checked it out and, sure enough, there are some heavyweights still with us. I’ve compiled a list focusing on those 80 or older. I’ve also stuck to people that have really made an impact, icons. Sure, the original prop man from “The Maltese Falcon” may still be alive at 110 but I’ve concentrated on the truly cool and tried to sum up briefly why they’re significant and therefore why it’s cool that they’re still standing. Lennon and Brando may be gone but there’s still some greats left. Let’s give them some love while they’re still here because once someone dies it’s ‘I always loved him’ – whether that’s true or not.

KIRK DOUGLAS, actor, 98. I’ve started with the oldest. 98! Kirk is a true Hollywood legend. Not conventionally handsome, this shortish spark plug of a man could handle the subdued scenes as well as anyone in film. But get him angry and look out. My kids and I used to joke that when he got angry in a movie with teeth-clenched rage it was enough to make you soil yourself. No one did rage, fury, anger or volatility better. Kirk made “Spartacus” almost single-handedly. ‘Nuff said. He also dealt a huge blow to the McCarthy blacklist of the early ’50’s by hiring – and crediting – Dalton Trumbo, a writer ostracized in Hollywood by the red scare. He’s been married to the same woman for better than 60 years and he’s got a dude of a son in Michael. Kirk owned the rights to the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and gave them to his son to produce. Michael’s career really took off when “Cuckoo’s Nest” became only the second film to win all four major Oscars. Mike was an Oscar-winning producer before he was an accomplished film actor. Kirk has survived a helicopter crash and a stroke. After the stroke, doctors said he would likely never speak again. Well, that don’t fly with Kirk. He was able to accept his honorary Oscar two months later and say a few words of thanks to the audience. Kirk is so cool that he has made seven films with Burt Lancaster, a legend in his own right. If all this isn’t enough, Kirk has also written ten novels and memoirs. Legend.

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BILLY GRAHAM, evangelist, 96. Graham is perhaps the largest single Christian prescence in U.S. history. He was the spiritual advisor to most American presidents between Harry Truman and Barack Obama. In the 1950’s, he insisted his audiences be integrated, at times inviting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly with him. Graham even bailed King out of prison when King was jailed for a peaceful demonstration. It is estimated that Graham has preached to more than 2.2 billion people and a yearly Gallup poll of the Most Admired Men has placed him at the top 55 times since 1955. “His presence converred sanctity on events, authority on presidents, acceptability on wars, desireablity on decency and shame on indecency and many deemed him America’s pastor.” There’s the Pope, Mother Theresa and Billy Graham.

DORIS DAY, singer/actress, 93. Some of these people need their own post. Doris started out as girl singer for Les Brown and His Band of Reknown in 1939 and soon made the transition to the big screen. By the early 1960’s, she was the biggest box office star in the country – male or female – for four years, the only woman of the era to top the list. Here’s what really blows me away, though: Doris Day is the single biggest female box office star of all-time and 6th – male or female – of all-time. Unreal. Here lies the purpose of this post: the people on this list have truly scaled the heights in their field and the fact that they’re still alive, I think, is cool. Doris is also the oldest living artist to score a top ten album of original material in the UK. When her husband and producer Martin Melcher died in the mid-’60’s, Doris learned that she had been robbed. Not only was she broke but she was heavily in debt. She also learned that without her knowledge Martin had committed her to do a weekly television show! (She proceeded to make “The Doris Day Show” a modest hit) She successfully sued the people involved in misappropriating her funds. She was awarded, wait for it: $22,835,646! Her son, Terry Melcher, is a whole other story. A music producer in the 1960’s, he was affiliated with, among others, the Beach Boys and through them with a budding folk singer name of Charlie Manson. A case could be made that the Manson Murders took place because of Doris Day’s son, Terry. Doris has lately devoted her time to the cause of animal welfare, and endevour in which she has made much progress. An interesting note about Doris: in 1950 she made the film “Young Man with a Horn” with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I often like to point out that this classic film is unique in that it’s stars Doris and Kirk – and Lauren until last year – are still alive. Also: Doris was born on the exact same day – April 3, 1924 – as Marlon Brando.

JOHNNY BOWER, goaltender, 90. Any guy who played goal in the NHL without a mask is alright by me. Years before his spells between the pipes for the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Bower served in World War 2 with the Canadian Army. Despite his small physical stature and rheumatoid arthritis, he returned from England to toil in the minor leagues for years until – at the age of 33 – he was picked up by the Maple Leafs. He played the next 11 years with the Leafs and although he was plagued by poor eyesight (NHL goalie with no mask and poor eyesight) he won the Vezina trophy twice and three consecutive Stanley Cups. His fourth Stanely Cup victory came when the Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens in 1967. During that series, Bower shut out the Habs and became the second-oldest goalie to play in the final – he was 42. Two years later, he became the oldest goalie to play in a play-off game but at 44 it was time to hang them up. He remains the goalie with the most career wins and shut-outs in the AHL. He’s been featured on a postage stamp and has had a street named after him. Always a welcome sight at the Air Cananda Centre, Bower is a true NHL legend who keeps on truckin’.

TONY BENNETT, singer, 88. Talk about someone needing their own post. Bennett was the first major singer that did not come from a big band. He has been with Columbia Records since, get this, 1950, 65 years. He’s won 18 Grammys and sold 50 million records. Tony is the oldest ACTIVE member on our list. He continues to release albums of new material and while I could discuss the merit of these recordings all day the fact remains that they are succesccful, highly visible affairs. Nobody – nobody – debates that Frank Sinatra is the pinnacle of the male singer of popular standards. Scholar Will Friedwald insists that Mel Torme should be considered the next name mentioned. Tony Bennett should certainly come after that, though. He belongs on a VERY short list of the greatest singers of all-time. In terms of enduring popularity, only Sinatra surpasses Bennett. The thing about Tony is that he has never compromised. He has never ceased to herald the integrity of the Great American Songbook, the Standards. In the late 1960’s, the evil Clive Davis coerced Tony, much against his will, to record an album in the ‘hits of the day’ vein that were so popular at the time. Tony obliged but was physically sick – actually throwing up – during the sessions. Never again did he make this descent but instead continued to share with the world the glory of Gerswhin, Porter et al. To this day he has never strayed from the kind of music that has been loved by the world for almost a century. He figures if it ain’t broke…

CHUCK BERRY, 88. FATS DOMINO, 87. LITTLE RICHARD, 82. JERRY LEE LEWIS, 79, rock ‘n’ rollers. It’s outstanding, really, that most of the architects of early rock ‘n’ roll are still with us. Out of all the major heavyweights, only Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly are gone. These artists are important not only because they played the type of music that eventually led to the bulk of the music we know and love today but also because they made massive cultural contributions to the burgeoning teen-age society. The biggest, most influential artists in history will tell you themselves that they were directly influenced by these pioneers. Chuck Berry, what can you say? Without question, he was the very first guitar hero and set the tone and style for rock guitar riffs and playing in general. Keith Richards once said every riff he played he stole from Chuck. Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has placed #1 in lists of the Greatet Guitar Songs of All-Time. Fats Domino was plying his trade even before the the rock ‘n’ roll era. The piano man from N’Awlins epitomizes the rock ‘n’ roll sound. “Ain’t That a Shame” was one of the biggest chart records of the era and that and “Bluberry Hill” rank among the classics of the age. Fats also provides an essential link between rock ‘n’ roll and New Orleans. In fact, Fats so loves his hometown that not even Hurricane Katrina could make him leave. Little Richard was a wild man. A true pioneer in his love of wild clothes, hair and performing style. His voice was more consistently outstanding than any of his peers. His largest contribution may be the “holler”. A welcome addition to any rock song is a well placed yell or scream of some sort. This practice originated with Little Richard. All the outrageous rock personalities – from Elton John to David Lee Roth – can thank Little Richard for blazing the trail. At 79, Jerry Lee Lewis is a touch young for this list but he definitely deserves a mention, especially among living rock pioneers. Unfortunately, Jerry’s major claim to fame these days is that he once married his 13-year-old second cousin. But what’s lost is Jerry, like Little Richard, is an original wildman. He’s got Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley for cousins and has his own biopic starring Dennis Quaid.

GORDIE HOWE, 87, hockey legend. While the debate over who was the greatest hockey player of all-time concerns only Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, there is only one “Mr. Hockey”. After making his debut in 1946, Gordie Howe was never one for single-season records – he never scored 50 goals in a season – but where Howe has all others beat is in the area of longevity. He played in the NHL in the 1940’s and the 1970’s. He was in the top ten in scoring 21 consecutive years! The first recipient of the NHL’s “Lifetime Achievement” award, Howe has the distinction of having the “Gordie Howe Hat-Trick” – a goal, an assist and a fight in a single game – named after him. He retired from the Hartford Whalers at the age of 52 – only to come back for one shift with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL at the age of 69. It’s hard to believe that his records for Most Games and Most Seasons will ever be broken. And the nickname “Mr. Hockey”? It’s officially trademarked.Gordie

CLINT EASTWOOD, 85, actor/director. Clint is the very best example of a man who has found success on so many levels and in so many arenas that any ONE of his ‘careers’ would make him a legend. He started out on television as a cowboy actor on “Rawhide”. During this time he released an album of ‘cowboy favourites’ – which I own on CD. From here he went to Spain and created the look of “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s three ‘spaghetti westerns’. From here he began directing his own films and made definitive ‘cop movies’ as Dirty Harry. Throughout the ’70’s and ’80’s he directed 30 films, became synonymous with golf at Pebble Beach, became a pilot, and shared his love of jazz by making a film on the life of Charlie Parker, working with Tony Bennett, and even writing and performing the scores of some of his films. Did I mention he was mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea for two years? He is one of two men (Warren Beatty) to have been twice Oscar nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for the same film. He is one of only three living directors to have directed two Best Picture Oscar winners. He’s also the oldest ever recipient of the Best Director Oscar. The recent “American Sniper” proves my point that Clint is not only still alive but he’s still contributing and relevant.

ARNOLD PALMER, 85, golfer. Perhaps the most legendary and beloved golfer of all-time, Arnold Palmer is the reason golf is televised today. Palmer’s rise in the late 1950’s coincided with the dawn of television but the nature of the game of golf at the time proved a challenge for broadcasters. Then came the charismatic “Arnie”, the first hero of the televised game. It is not even debated among pro golfers today that they owe their living to Palmer. A simple man of humble beginnings, Arnie changed the perception of golf as an elitist sport reserved for the rich. When, into his 50’s, his competitive days were over, what is now known as the Champions Tour was created for him and his contemporaries. And here again he made it possible for golfers to continue to make a living at the game into their 60’s. The man has a beverage named after him. Interesting note: in 53 years as a pro golfer, Arnie earned $1,861,857 in winnings. In 2008 alone, his off-course earnings reached $30 MILLION. Arnie is a man of the people and universally loved. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal, the U.S.’s highest civilian honour, from President Obama.

BOB NEWHART, 85, comedian/actor. Along with Betty White, Newhart is a living television legend. He is the original stand-up comedian who got his own TV show. But before this he became the world’s first solo straight man and was an extremely successful recording artist in the era when comedians put out albums. In fact, his “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” album became the first comedy album to go to #1 and it actually won the Grammy for Album of the Year. He also won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1961 – the same award that’s been won by the Beatles, Mariah Carey and Carrie Underwood. He won an Emmy in 2013 for a guest spot on “The Big Bang Theory”. He’s been married to the same woman since 1963 and was one of the first owners of a home computer. Canadian content note: his grandmother is from St. Catherines.

QUINCY JONES, 82, producer/band leader. “Q” has done everything. Much like Clint Eastwood – with whom he went to Seattle University – he has had a exceptional career in so many different areas that any one of them make him a legend. Dig: record producer, conductor, arranger, composer, musician, TV producer, film producer, magazine founder, entertainment company executive and humanitarian. Jones has won an astounding 27 Grammy Awards which ties him for second most. Jones was the first African American to do many things in the music industry and no African American has been nominated for more Academy Awards. His music career has seen him bring his particular brand of cool to the music of Paris and Brazil and he was the only cat cool enough to arrange and conduct two of the albums Sinatra made with Basie. Jones produced the biggest selling pop album of all time, “Thriller”. I’ll always be indebted to Jones for the theme from “Sanford and Son” – if that was all he ever did, he’d still be my favourite. The man is so cool that – get this – his middle name is “Delight”. My man.

HANK AARON, 81, baseball player. One of the greatest and most beloved ball players ever is still with us. “Hammerin'” Hank was an MLB All-Star a ridiculous 25 times. His record mark of 2,297 RBI’s is considered one of the few ‘insurmountable’ records in pro sports. His heroic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark was made moreso considering the hate mail and death threats he received as he approached the 714 mark. When he retired after a sublime career, he held most of the key power hitting records in the game. He perhaps – along with Ruth – was the original “power hitter”, setting the standard for generations to come. The best thing about Henry Aaron? Sheer strength and an eye for the ball. Never even a hint of any substance use that may have enhanced his performance. It was all Hank.

                  Hank

Honouable mentions: Roger Moore (87), Sean Connery (84), Angela Lansbury (89), Maureen O’Hara (94), Debbie Reynolds (83), Robert Wagner (85) and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, 88, who were born with a week of each other in 1927. And Nancy Barbato – the first Mrs. Frank Sinatra and the mother of his children – is still alive at 97. She wins.